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NC bill would require special elections in some party-switchers’ districts. (Think Tricia Cotham)


NC bill would require special elections in some party-switchers’ districts. (Think Tricia Cotham)

Jun 06, 2023 | 4:30 pm ET
By Lynn Bonner
NC bill would require special elections in some party-switchers’ districts. (Think Tricia Cotham)
Rep. Tricia Cotham announces she is switching parties to become a Republican at NC GOP headquarters. (Photo screen grab of video streamed on ABC11.COM/WTVD)

The bill might as well be called the No More Cothams Act. 

Democrats from Mecklenburg County who voted for Rep. Tricia Cotham last year and say she betrayed them when she became a Republican are backing a bill that would force new elections in some party-switchers’ districts. 

A Senate bill filed this week inspired by Cotham’s dramatic and consequential political move would require special elections when legislators switch parties with more than six months left in their terms. Those legislators would have to return campaign contributions to donors who ask for their money back. 

Cotham’s party switch a few months ago gave House Republicans 72 members and a veto-proof majority.

In an interview Tuesday, Cotham said Democrats are using her party switch to raise money. 

“The Democrats and the other side want to use my story to fit into the narrative that they need to raise money – which has been the greatest thing for them- which is they’re raising money off of me,” she said. “They’re stirring up more of their base. They’re going to keep this going by this stunt today.”

Ann Newman of Mint Hill attended a Tuesday morning news conference on the bill along with other Mecklenburg residents. 

Newman said she’s known Cotham for years, but now can’t get her to respond to messages. “I attended her children’s baby showers. I thought I knew her well.”

Newman said she asked Cotham’s campaign treasurer to return her contribution, and she got the refund. 

Cotham ran in House District 112  as a champion of abortion rights, equitable funding for public schools, and LGBTQ rights. She won a four-way primary last year and cruised to victory in November in the solidly Democratic district. She previously served in the House from 2007 to 2016. 

Since joining the GOP, Cotham has voted the Republican Party line on bills limiting abortion and limiting gender-affirming care for minors. She co-sponsored a House bill expanding the state voucher program to offer parents, no matter their income, taxpayer money for private school tuition. 

MaryJane Conti, a Democratic precinct chair in Mecklenburg, said she told people last spring that she would probably vote for Cotham, and those people followed her lead.

“The people in my precinct trusted me like I trusted her, and she betrayed that trust by switching parties just three months after being sworn in,” Conti said. “Voters need some kind of recourse when this kind of bait-and-switch happens.”

Cotham said her voting record this year is consistent with the positions she campaigned on. Her support for vouchers does not mean she doesn’t support public schools, she said. Cotham said she supports LGBTQ rights but was “uncomfortable with the trans bill when it comes to our children.” 

Before her primary last year, Cotham tweeted about “unwavering and unapologetic support” for abortion rights and wrote that she would “continue my strong record of defending the right to choose.”

Cotham said the abortion bill vote was consistent with that position because it allows abortions for any reason up to 12 weeks, the time when most abortions are performed. There are other things in the bill that are “good for families, good for kids, and good for women,” she said. 

The bill establishes parental leave for state employees and increases Medicaid rates for providers of obstetric care.

The bill also adds new requirements for people seeking abortions, and may force some clinics to close.

The bill filed by three Senate Democrats responds to Cotham’s former supporters who discovered there was no way to vote her out of office in the middle of a legislative term. The bill has no Republican sponsors and no chance of becoming law this session. 

Cotham’s was not the only party switch in state history with tremendous political consequences. In 2003, conservative Republican Michael Decker became a Democrat, a move that helped lead to a Democrat and a Republican sharing the House speakership. House Democrats were encouraged to welcome Decker into the fold. 

Decker said later he accepted a bribe to switch parties and served time in federal prison. 

Cotham was appointed to the House in 2007 to replace former House Speaker Jim Black. Black was on the other end of the Decker party switch and he served prison time for accepting illegal contributions from chiropractors in exchange for supporting their bills. 

Guilford County Democratic Sen. Michael Garrett said Tuesday he wishes the legislature had passed a law requiring special elections in party-switcher districts 20 years ago. 

“I think we learn from past mistakes and we try to build upon it and make ourselves better and try to restore confidence in voters and the democratic process when we can,” he said.